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“GOIN ‘ TO THE CHAPEL AND WE’RE GONNA GET MARRIED”

In 2007 my partner Nan and I entered into a civil union in Hamilton, New Zealand. The Civil Union Act was passed in New Zealand in 2004 making civil partnerships between same-sex and opposite-sex couples legal from 2005.

The Act was a controversial piece of legislation and was bitterly opposed by some conservative Christian groups. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people themselves had mixed views about civil unions. Some argued that it was a second-best option that told gay people (especially gay youth) they would never be good enough for the real thing. Others contended that the real thing – gay marriage – was as yet politically unachievable and that civil unions offered important legal rights and protections.

As Methodists, Nan and I are used to being pragmatic so we advocated for civil unions. We rejoiced when the opportunity came to make a public commitment to each other, which for the first time would be recognised by the law.

However, when the Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Act was passed in New Zealand in 2013, making same-sex marriage legal, we had little hesitation in deciding to ‘upsize’ our civil union. For one thing, it gave us an excuse to throw another party! More seriously, we knew that as Christians we needed more than a civil partnership. We needed the real thing, in part because we believe that we and all LGBT people are of full moral worth and deserving of all of the social respect that accompanies marriage. We also needed the commitment we had made to each other to be clearly seen within the context of our response to God and God’s response to us. For us, that meant we needed to be married.

Nan and I are both aware that the notion of marriage comes with a certain amount of cultural and religious baggage. As a human institution, marriage has a complex and evolving history. Biblical models of marriage are also diverse reflecting different times and places. Yet, as the New Zealand writer Margaret Mayman noted, marriage has an enduring power and resonance. ‘When we say we are married, people understand the commitments we have made and the responsibilities we have undertaken.’ For us, the power of marriage lies in the fact that it’s a commitment modelled on and sealed by the presence of God’s love in our lives, a love that through self-giving brings us to fullness of life.

In November 2013 we were married by our local minister in the Methodist church to which we belong. Like couples before us, we gave thanks for a love that had come to us both as a gift and blessing from God. In the presence of God and our community of faith we made serious and sacred promises to share the depths of our lives together in love and friendship, in trust and mutual understanding. With joy we were assured that our relationship was recognised and blessed by the God who was sending us into the world to be a sign of love’s presence. We had made such promises and received such assurances at our civil union ceremony, but knowing that we were taking part in a tradition made holy by the struggles and prayers of those who had gone before us gave the words extra meaning and resonance. In the eyes of God and our community of faith we were good enough for the real thing.

In New Zealand the Civil Union Act was an important step on the road to greater equality for LGBT people, giving gay couples new legal rights and protections. As Christians, however, Nan and I needed more than a civil partnership. We needed our relationship to be seen within the context of our lives as people of faith seeking to respond to the presence of love in our lives. We needed to be married. f

 

Rev. Dr Susan Thompson is a Methodist minister currently serving as District Superintendent of the Waikato-Waiariki Synod in New Zealand. She is a marriage and civil union celebrant.page 6 Susan Thompson